The Park Prescription
By Annette McGivney
Several weeks ago, while walking past the neighborhood park, I was shocked to see the playground equipment wrapped in yellow caution tape.
“Was someone murdered right here on the merry go round?” I wondered.
But then I realized the tape was just another desperate response to this strange new era we are living in, where getting too close to people can be dangerous and any surface might be contaminated with coronavirus.
The news about a mounting death rate already had me stressed and this dystopian scene made me even more panicked. But then I looked up and saw the San Francisco Peaks, unshakable as always. They were cloaked in snow and radiating pastel colors in the day’s last light. I instantly felt better. The caution tape paled against the mountain’s luminous pink and purple.
From the park, I kept walking up a trail that led into the forest. It was getting dark, but I needed my daily nature fix. I wanted the trees to surround me, to tell me it was going to be okay. I grew up in a dysfunctional home and learned in early childhood that the place I felt most calm and cared for was in the woods. As an adult who continues to experience the symptoms of childhood trauma, I have found wandering in wild places to be my most effective therapy. Now, in the age of coronavirus, I am more grateful than ever for the powerful, anxiety-reducing medicine Mother Earth provides me.
I was lucky to grow up in a rural area with plenty of undeveloped forest that was ripe for roaming. But most children today can’t just slip out their back door and find that same kind of intimate wilderness experience that I did back in the 1970s. This is why I established The Healing Lands Project in 2017 in connection with my book, Pure Land, a memoir about my history with family violence and how nature helped save me. Now part of Grand Canyon Youth, Healing Lands gives kids who are survivors of trauma access to potentially life-changing wilderness experiences. Because economic hardships and social pressures from the coronavirus have caused a spike in domestic violence cases, we anticipate the need for Healing Lands trips will be greater than ever when social distancing restrictions are lifted.
If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis, it may be a changed relationship to the wild for those who have increased time and opportunity to explore it. While social distancing has pushed us away from each other and our consumer-based diversions, it has also brought many of us closer to the outdoors. I believe people seeking time in nature are motivated by much more than the need for some exercise. We are all traumatized to varying degrees by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are seeking solace in natural places – and the research supports this instinct.
Recent scientific studies reported in Outside magazine document the positive impact of wild places on the human nervous system. A story I wrote for Backpacker shares medical research that shows how time in nature helps reduce trauma symptoms in adults as well as children. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Nature and Health at Children’s Hospital Oakland, conducted a study where she took traumatized youth on regular backcountry outings in what she called the “park prescription.” In addition to conducting surveys on their psychological well-being, the research team obtained saliva samples to measure parasympathetic nervous system markers before, during, and after the outings.
“We found that nature decreases the trauma response, improves cognitive function and promotes healing,” Razani said. “Our study showed that park visits increase resilience in children. It doesn’t take away the adversity in their lives but it buffers stress. Hormones, blood pressure and heart rate normalize in nature.”
Why, exactly, is this so?
“Maybe it is simply because we evolved in nature,” Razani said. “For most of human history we lived outside.”
Unfortunately, not all youth have equal opportunities to experience wild places and the healing power they provide. Grand Canyon Youth is committed to increasing access to the outdoors by addressing barriers to participation, whether they are financial, physical, or otherwise. And while GCY’s expeditions are currently on hold, we are working hard to ensure that our programs, including the Healing Lands Project, will still be there – and accessible – to the youth who need them once the pandemic has passed.
There is much talk about “getting back to normal.” When that time eventually comes, it will be a new normal, shaped by what this pandemic has taught us about what we can do without and what is essential for sustaining us. I look forward to healing myself and my family in the arms of Mother Earth.